STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Of course, the number of unemployed is a huge focus in this presidential campaign. Still, with the jobless rate relatively high in many sectors of the economy, there is one area that has faired quite well throughout the recession and beyond: luxury products - which does not mean serving the rich is a path to riches yourself. Adam Davidson, from our Planet Money team, met one man who is struggling, even as he makes a very pricey product.
ADAM DAVIDSON, BYLINE: When I first heard about Peter Frew and his remarkable skill, I thought: That guy must be making a fortune. He invited me to his place, to show me what he can do.
PETER FREW: You can see the tiny stitches.
FREW: They're all done by hand. If you really want a perfect suit, then bespoke is the only way you can get that.
DAVIDSON: Peter Frew is one of a very tiny number of people left in the United States who can, entirely on his own - using almost no machinery - make a classic bespoke men's suit. He can measure you, draw a pattern, cut the fabric, and then hand-stitch a suit designed to fit your body perfectly.
FREW: We don't just do it by hand in order to say that it's handmade. Suits that are made by hand are exceptionally comfortable.
DAVIDSON: Frew spent more than a decade as an apprentice to a remarkable tailor in his native Jamaica. He now sells his suits for about $4,000. Since New York is filled with very rich people who see their suits as an essential uniform, Frew has all the orders he can handle - which, it turns out, is not that many orders.
This one suit, how much - how many hours will it take you?
FREW: Upwards of - let's say 70, 75 hours. Yeah, roughly,
DAVIDSON: So that's like, two suits a month.
FREW: Yeah, for one - that's what one tailor could do, you know, by himself.
DAVIDSON: It's $4,000 to the end customer.
DAVIDSON: I'm guessing, at the most, you're keeping half of that.
DAVIDSON: Four thousand dollars...
FREW: It's not a lot.
DAVIDSON: It's not a lot of money.
FREW: Not a lot, really.
DAVIDSON: After expenses - fine English wool costs a lot - Frew takes home less than $50,000 a year. That's not enough to own a fancy suit made by a bespoke tailor, even when you, yourself, are a bespoke tailor.
Do you have suits you've made for yourself, Peter?
FREW: Actually, no.
DAVIDSON: No - really? Why not?
FREW: It's the time. It - the - I'm always - have to be working on something else, for somebody else. You know?
FREW: And because I do know the difference, I cannot just get a suit somewhere else. I love luxury.
DAVIDSON: You don't own any suits?
FREW: No. (LAUGHTER)
DAVIDSON: You have no suits?
FREW: No. I have trousers and shirts, but no suits.
DAVIDSON: Most of us, though, are happy to buy mass-produced suits. They might not be perfect, but they're decent; and they keep getting better. The big suit-making factories in China, Bangladesh and Pakistan use advanced sewing machines and chemical applications that are nowhere near as good as bespoke, but they're a lot better than they used to be. Every year, industrial suit-making technology improves. It's better quality for lower cost, while the traditional methods just don't change, and cost more and more. But Frew believes that eventually, more people will reject those automatically created suits.
If everything goes well, what is your life like in 10 years, 20 years?
FREW: Having a nice store up on - somewhere in the Upper East Side, on - in Manhattan; and a factory with about, you know, 50 tailors or more...
DAVIDSON: Each doing the full suit.
FREW: ...doing a full suit.
DAVIDSON: But that's the problem. There aren't 50 bespoke tailors in the U.S. And there probably won't ever be. Why would anyone spend 15 years learning a skill that pays so little? But Frew says he's fine, even if his big dreams don't come true. He just loves what he does. He loves hand-making perfect suits.
Adam Davidson, NPR News.
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